Giving an established business that has fallen on hard times a successful makeover can be a challenging undertaking. One Fort Lauderdale distributor is working hard to modernize and update its internal operations and brand image after years of declining sales.
Twenty years ago, Lewis Marine was considered an icon in South Florida. The distributor opened its doors in 1959, becoming one of the region’s strongest distributors as it competed with upstarts like Land ‘n’ Sea. In the last ten years, Lewis began to see its market share and sales fall off as its business model had was not modernizing against its competitors--particularly Land ‘n’ Sea, which had grown to an unprecedented size following its acquisition by Brunswick Corp. in 2003.
Earlier this year, there were rumors going around Ft. Lauderdale that Lewis Marine was in bankruptcy.
“Those rumors weren’t true,” Chelsea Beyer, president of Lewis Marine, told Trade Only Today. “There were two businesses involved, Lewis Marine Supply and the entity that owned the land.” Lewis Marine never went into bankruptcy, says Beyer, while the landowner filed for bankruptcy protection for about a month before withdrawing the motion.
The situation at Lewis was dire enough for a new owner to purchase the assets in early March. Brooks Smith, a private-equity investor, Fort Lauderdale resident and longtime customer of Lewis Marine, owns a string of sportfishing boats. Smith thought so highly of the business and its potential that he decided to purchase the assets and invest large sums to modernize it.
“He didn’t want to see the business go under,” says Beyer, whom Smith hired to run Lewis Marine. Beyer has held executive positions with ConocoPhillips as well as specialty chemical companies Ecolab and Zep. “The company was also working with hundreds of suppliers and manufacturers that wanted it to succeed,” she adds.
Beyer said that the “number one-priority” for Lewis was “getting back as a reliable source” for its clients. Lewis Marine held an open house two weeks ago to demonstrate that it will be back, better than ever. It updated the offices, built a new lounge for customers--including computers for ordering from its online catalogue—and made structural updates to its warehouse.
“We’re currently running at 96 percent stocking level,” says Beyer. “We’ve been talking to customers to make sure they know we’re here for what they need.”
Now that it has accomplished damage control with the open house, the company plans to modernize operations, develop an e-commerce platform, as well as installing new computers, enterprise management software and electronic tracking system for the warehouse. Lewis has also put out the “help-wanted” sign for workers with different skill sets, including technical personnel.
“Before now, the business had largely been paper-based,” Beyer said. “We’re adding a lot of new technology while updating the branding. We also inherited about 30 employees with an average tenure of about 20 years. That’s a great base to work from and we’re trying to hire warehouse workers, marketing and purchasing people as fast as we can.”
The Great Recession took its toll on Lewis, says Beyer, and while the business recovered, there were ongoing challenges around cash flow and the ability to buy into more marine categories.
“The new owner has given us the means to invest in product segments we’ve ignored in the past, like LED lighting, so we can expand into areas that our competition is involved in,” says Beyer. “The goal is to stay strong in the businesses that we already compete in while developing new businesses. We’re currently working with 325 manufacturers but are now looking for new suppliers.”
While the satellite Lewis Marine stores were closed before the new owner bought the business, the company still has six trucks that run 16 routes around South Florida. Beyer said the company has two more trucks on order.
The company has already exceeded its first-year projections, says Beyer. She says there are “not a lot of players” in Florida’s regional marine distribution, so there is “plenty of space” for Lewis.
“Now that we’re on the other side of the open house, we’ll continue with modifications to the business,” says Beyer. “We plan to get all of our existing and new vendors in our new 2020 catalogue, which will be a big consideration for us going forward. We’ve made a lot of changes to the business, but we’re not done yet. We have some cool plans for the future.”